Tracing the Brazil - U.S. connection

Creatures that keep Brazilians up at night

Halloween is pretty much an Anglo-Saxon tradition, so we Brazilians only got to experience it vicariously by way of Hollywood. Yes, I actually remember being jealous of the kids in E.T. the Extraterrestrial: not only did they find an adorable alien, but they had a holiday to wear creepy costumes and go around town asking for candy — that was so not fair.

But on the plus side, Brazilian folklore is chock-full of ghoulish creatures capable of playing havoc with a child’s imagination. Some of these legends traveled across the Atlantic with Portuguese settlers, but other were homegrown, popping up during the colonial era or harking back to the ancient imaginary of Brazil’s indigenous people. Passed on from one generation to the next and filtered through various ethnic and regional sensibilities, these stories came to comprise a rich and unique mythology that is largely unknown across the world.

I recently spent some time revisiting these stories through various Web sources, and one thing that struck me was that the spooks of Brazilian legend are fairly benign, compared with, say, vampires or bigfoot; most of them are otherworldly apparitions bent on scaring you or messing with you, but they won’t actually get you. As a child, however, the prospect of encountering one of these creatures of the night was pretty unsettling, to say the least.


Creatures that keep Brazilians up at night
By Amokdreams on Deviant Art

Saci Pererê, usually referred to as Saci, is probably the most enduring character in Brazilian mythology; there’s even a Saci appreciation society, and some Brazilians call Halloween Sacilloween or Saci Day instead. Every Brazilian child knows that Saci is a one-legged black boy who smokes a pipe and wears a red cap that gives him magical powers, but his origin is uncertain — he’s most likely a combined product of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian lore. Descriptions of his powers and behavior also vary; he may be able to appear or disappear at will, sometimes materializing in a cloud of smoke, or to create and move around in whirlwinds.

The more kid-friendly versions of the Saci legend describe him as a mischievous but entirely benign character who likes to play tricks, but there are some more sinister versions in which he takes great pleasure in frightening and tormenting people — usually hapless travelers lost in the woods. It’s also said that he rides across the countryside on horseback on full-moon nights, and that it’s possible to trap him in a bottle and even domesticate him, because when his red cap is taken away, all his powers go with it.


O Curupira
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Curupira is a smallish boy with his feet turned backwards and fire-red hair. He’s a forest being that protects trees and animals and is said to be able to control wildlife. He’s often seen riding on a razorback and can be generous toward people traveling through a forest but can also turn violent against hunters.

Curupira is a product of the indigenous imagination; in 1560, José de Anchieta, a Jesuit educator who had a soft spot for native peoples, wrote in a letter:

It is known, and by everyone’s mouths, that there are certain demons that the brasis [his term for native Brazilians] name Curupiras, that often haunt Indians in the woods and lash, hurt and kill them. Some of our brothers give testimony of this, having seen those killed by it. That’s why Indians have the custom of leaving bird feathers, fans, arrows and other similar things, as a kind of offering, on the top of the highest hills when threading certain trails that lead, through rough paths, to the heart of those lands. They ask curupiras with fervor that no harm is done to them.


By eXtorvo on DeviantART
By eXtorvo on DeviantART

Cuca is sort of a Brazilian take on the bogeyman — or rather, bogeywoman. She started out as Coco, an Iberian ghoul that would supposedly devour misbehaving children; in Portugal the character morphed into a female figure, Coca, over the years. In Brazil she became Cuca, and while by some accounts she’s a hideous old hag, most often she’s described as a witch with long blond hair and an alligator-like body — and yes, she still takes away kids who behave badly.


By qrolfashion on DeviantART
By qrolfashion on DeviantART

Okay, I didn’t know this one until recently, but as it turns out, the Pisadeira is a feared apparition in Brazil’s Southwest, particularly in the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo. She’s a skinny hag with red eyes, scraggly hair and freakishly long fingers who watches you as she lurks atop your roof. For some reason, she gets down from the roof to torment you if you eat too much and go to sleep lying on your back; by some accounts she lays on your stomach and you go into a motionless stupor, while by other accounts she stomps on your stomach and scratches like mad if you try to fight back.

The Pisadeira may or may not have come from Portugal, but one way or another there are similar mythological creatures around the world that are said to lay on people’s stomachs and induce paralysis; regardless of their country or origin, these creatures are believed to be primitive attempts to explain sleep paralysis — a phenomenon in which people experience a sense of inability to move as they are falling asleep or wakening.


By FBende on DeviantART
By FBende on DeviantART

Another myth of indigenous origin, the Boitatá was basically an attempt to explain the St. Elmo’s Fire phenomenon. According to the Brazilian natives, what we know as a luminous glow generated by electric fields is a gigantic fire-snake that protects the fields from people who would set fire to them.

Different versions of the Boitatá legend popped up across the country over the years; the best-known one comes from the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, According to it, a long period of darkness fell over the land, and a large snake that could see in the dark ate the eyes of every animal it could find; eventually its body became an agglomeration of fiery eyeballs, otherwise know as — you guessed it — Boitatá. It roams the land to this day, and those who are unlucky enough to cross its path can go blind, insane, and even die.

Mula sem cabeça

By Sarah--AS on DeviantART
By Sarah–AS on DeviantART

Americans have the Headless Horseman; Brazilians have the Headless Mule (mula sem cabeça), or rather, Mules. Legend has it that a woman who gives herself to a priest is cursed to periodically became a supernatural equine, but the particulars vary from one region of the country to the next. In some accounts she has no head and spews fire from the neck, in others she has a head and spews fire from the mouth and nostrils, but she’s always doomed to roam the land scaring the bejesus out of people and can become violent when challenged.

The frequency of the transformation also varies by region; it may be every Thursday night, every Lent, on full-moon nights, or every seven years. Different ways of breaking the curse are also reported, and similar legends exist across Latin America. The Catholic moral of the story is clear: Don’t temp the priest, you hoes.


By ivsonwild on DeviantART
By ivsonwild on DeviantART

That’s Portuguese for werewolf, a myth that goes all the way back to ancient Greece. There are numerous Brazilian variations of the tale; the curse may affect a family’s seventh (or eighth) consecutive male child, a male born after seven girls, or it may be randomly passed from one generation to the next after the accursed one dies. There are some very peculiar variations; in some regions it’s said that there are ways to willfully turn oneself into a werewolf, while in some places werewolves are reported to have a preference for unbaptized children, leading parents to have their kids baptized as early as possible. In the Northern state of Rondônia people say an unlucky soul who becomes a werewolf at night must run across seven cemeteries before dawn or remain a werewolf forever.

Werewolves were reportedly plentiful in my neck of the woods (Bahia). Supposedly there was a pack of them in Itaparica island, where some relatives of mine owned a house — a “fact” that some unkind cousins loved to play up, which would keep me up at night and very agitated whenever I visited them.